Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Immoderate Greatness: the narrative of collapse

Not long ago, I was taking a walk with an American friend in the woods near my house. As we walked, I was pointing to him the effects of climate change that could be seen all around us: stressed trees, damaged vegetation, signs of wildfires, and more. After a while, though, I noticed that my statements produced no reply. It was as he was not hearing what I was saying or, if he could hear me, he could make no sense of what I was saying.

My friend is not a climate denier in the sense of someone who is driven by ideological reasons. It was just that, for him, climate change was a totally alien concept. It just wasn't part of his view of the future of the world, which he seemed to see as dominated by more and more powerful smartphones.

The way we see the world, I think, is mostly as if it were a story. We absorb new information by comparing it to the concatenated elements of the plot of a long and complex story that we have in our mind. For some of us, it is a novel of progress and of increasingly sophisticated gadgetry. For others, it is a novel of initial greatness and subsequent failure. And, with my friend in the woods, it was like we were characters of different narratives, as if - say - Prince Hamlet were to meet Homer Simpson.

The concept of the world as a narrative came back to my mind when reading “Immoderate Greatness, Why Civilizations Fail”, a book by William Ophuls. It is all there: our story, the story of our civilization that we are seeing as it goes through its stupendous trajectory that has brought it to heights never seen in the past but that will end in an even more stupendous collapse. The book doesn't try to convince you of anything, it doesn't create models, it doesn't present solutions, it does not advocate that you change your behavior. It is just that: a narrative of our impending collapse in a slim book of less than 70 pages written in a style that much reminds that of the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon.

A couple of excerpts (p. 57)

Bluntly put, human societies are addicted to their ruling ideas and their received way of life, and they are fanatical in their defense. Hence, they are extremely reluctant to reform. “To admit error and cut losses,” said Tuchman, “is rare among individuals, unknown among states”

And (p. 68)

... the hubris of every civilization is that it is, like the Titanic, unsinkable. Hence the motivation to plan for shipwreck is lacking. In addition, the civilization's contradictions and difficulties are seen not as symptoms of impending collapse but, rather, as problems to be solved by better policies and personnel

In a sense, it is a fascinating, dramatic, fast paced story and for many of us it is the correct narrative of the world as we see it. Others, however, will still be seeing smartphones as more important than climate change.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)